12 March 2011

The death of the word

I've been thinking about writing a post under this title for a while, but every time I think about it, it changes.  I figured I'd just publish and be damned, and if I change my mind later, I'll post again.

Right now there's a bit of a spat going through the courts been Apple and Microsoft.  There always is, but this one's a bit special.  Apple have claimed "App Store" as a trademark, Microsoft say it's a generic term.  Apple say it must be a trademark as they invented it, Microsoft say it must be a generic term because it's modelled on the generic pattern for shops in US English -- hardware store, liquor store, general store -- with the generic term app simply stating the type of shop/store it is.  ("App" is short for "application" -- ie any piece of computer software that serves a useful purpose, rather than being a game.)  Microsoft also point to several examples of the term being used generically in the press.

What's going on here is that no-one wants to create new words any more.  If you make a new word, others can use it; and if they can use the same word, they can compete for your customers.  It's much easier to make a new name, trademark it, and stifle the competition.

Imagine you're going for a meal.  Do you order a burger for yourself and a kids meal for the children?  No, you get a "Big Mac" and they get a "Happy Meal".  You buy these from a place marked "McDonald's".  Not "McDonald's Restaurant", not "McDonald's Burger Bar", just "McDonald's".  McDonald's don't want to use words, because they want to trap you into coming back -- you can't ask for the same thing anywhere else.

If you go to any gym now, all the workouts have TM or R after them.  Salsacise and Zoomba are just keepfit with Latin American music, RPM and Spinning are just exercise bike workouts.  But put a trademarked name on them instead of a generic one, and suddenly they seem unique, and your audience is locked in.

Consider also the BlackBerry, the only serious mobile email device prior to the arrival of the iPhone.  There were other systems that could do the job -- Nokia and Microsoft were selling them.  But why did the BlackBerry take off the way it did?  Because it was first to market and they did not coin a word.  It was BlackBerry.  It was not a "BlackBerry(TM) mobile emailer", it was a BlackBerry.  When people talked to each other about it, the only word was BlackBerry.  Talk about Windows Mobile or Nokia and you'd get asked "so it's a BlackBerry then?"  And what then?  How do you explain the concept of doing the same thing as a BlackBerry but not being a BlackBerry?

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